Of Joseph, Olynpics, and the mystery of God

Passage: Psalm 133;Genesis 45:1-20
Date: August 17, 2008
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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Before we hear today’s lectionary reading from Genesis, we need to catch up with what is one of the fabulous and longest stories in all of the Bible. It stretches from chapter 37 to the end of chapter 50. Its turning point occurs in our 20 verses. If you have not read it from beginning to end in one sitting, give yourself a wonderful summer reading treat. Filled with family stuff, with deceit and trickery and grief, surprises lurk around each turn. Here is a Cliff notes version:

Our patriarch in faith, Jacob, is reported to have fathered twelve sons by various wives and concubines. He and his offspring shepherd flocks in Canaan, land just east of the empire of Egypt. Among the twelve, because they were born to his favorite wife, Rachel, two are most favored: Joseph and Benjamin. Joseph, privileged, pampered, spoiled by his father, exacerbates normal sibling rivalries. Essentially, his older brothers can hardly stand him.

One day, his father sends Joseph out to find his brothers, to see how they are doing tending the herds. Ask yourself: how come Joseph was at home, instead of working in the family business? Remember, this is sort of a bedouin existence, always moving in search of pasture. Of course, Joseph goes forth, wearing his like-none-of-his-brothers-have fancy robe, that coat with long sleeves or many colors. (If you are in pew 11, west side, near the center aisle, you may be sitting on Joseph’s needlepointed coat.) His brothers see him coming, and can hardly stand it. They decide to kill him, and report to their father that a wild animal had done it. Brother Ruben can’t quite let them, so buys time by convincing them to throw him into a pit instead. While Joseph languishes in the pit, a camel caravan of traders going down to Egypt comes along. The brothers decide to sell Joseph to them, which they do. Oh, I forgot. Before the looking for his brothers in the pasture part, at home one day, Joseph told his brothers about two dreams he had had. In one, they were binding sheaves of grain. Suddenly all of the sheaves gathered around Joseph’s, and bowed down to his. Dreams were important, to be listened to. Think about how well that went over with his older brothers. “Guess what? You will all bow down to me.” His other dream had similar imagery of superiority and inferiority, and he told that one to them too. They hated him even more. Back to the pasture–so Joseph found himself on his way to Egypt. The brothers slaughtered a goat and spread blood on Joseph’s beautiful robe, and took it to their father, with the terrible lie that he had been killed by some wild animal. Jacob entered grieving that would not end. The brothers had to live with what they had done to their father, and brother.

Then the Joseph story breaks to relate one about his brother Judah, Judah’s wife and their three sons. It includes Judah being seduced by his widowed daughter-in-law posing as a prostitute. Yes, it is in the Bible, and yes, the woman outfoxes the man.

Back to Joseph. In Egypt, Joseph is sold as a slave to the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. Attractive, skilled, we’d say that everything he touches turned to gold. Soon, he is running the captain’s household. Attractive, his master’s wife attempts to seduce this young foreign dude. He refuses, repeatedly. Totally frustrated, she accuses him of trying to have an affair with her, and he lands in prison. With his astonishing leadership skills, the chief jailer eventually commits the care of all of the prisoners to him. One day, two of Pharaoh’s servants find themselves in prison with him: Pharaoh’s chief cup bearer and his chief baker. Enter two more dreams, theirs. Joseph interprets them, and tells the cup bearer to remember to Pharaoh what he has done. The dreams come to pass, and the cup bearer forgets. Joseph languishes with the dregs of society, until Pharaoh himself has two dreams. None of his religious advisors can interpret them. Suddenly the cup bearer remembers Joseph’s ability to interpret, and tells Pharaoh. Joseph gets cleaned up and dragged before the ruler of the Egyptian empire. Imagine. Joseph interprets the dreams. Pharaoh is impressed, and adds Joseph to his staff. In fact, he makes him head of staff, over all of Egypt, second in authority only to Pharaoh. A historical note: ancient murals from the second millennium BCE, do portray foreigners in very high positions in the Egyptian empire. The dream: there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph’s job: store enough grain to get through the famine years. Notice the nobody, the outsider, is now part of empire. The people are taxed an additional 20% of their crops, for their own good. Joseph also gets an Egyptian name, and wife. They produce two sons, to whom he gives Hebrew names: Ephraim and Manasseh, perhaps hinting at the remoteness of his former life, not quite detached.

The famine years indeed arrive. Joseph opens the storehouses to the people, selling back to them the grain. Did you hear that? The famine extends into Canaan, and in due time, as many others historically actually did, his brothers arrive to buy grain. They bow themselves before him (remember the early dream). While he recognizes them, they haven’t a clue. He toys with them, accuses them, questions and imprisons them. A few days later he lets them out, tells them they can have the grain, but they need to leave their brother, Simeon, behind. And next time they come, they must bring his younger Benjamin with them. Read it to hear their agonized and very important responses.

The remaining brothers return to Canaan. When they get home, the find that the money they paid for the grain had been put back into the grain sacks. Now they are terrified of consequences, like somehow they stole the grain. Father Jacob cannot fathom sending Benjamin back, his beloved son. Finally, the famine is so severe that they must return for more grain. Besides, brother Simeon remains in Egypt in prison. They return, with the money from the first visit, and more to buy additional food, and with Benjamin. Joseph toys with them again, this time in a way that will trap Benjamin. He sends them on their way. Then all sorts of things break loose, and they return under royal guard to Joseph, cowering. Joseph says they can go home with the grain, but must leave Benjamin (his only full brother) in Egypt. Older brother Judah gives an impassioned plea on behalf of their father. Essentially, there is no way he can go back to Jacob without the beloved-of-his-father, Benjamin. Now today’s dramatic reading. Ready? Listen. 45:1-20.

Three observations. First, unlike many biblical stories, in this one, God remains hidden, mysterious within the ordinary of family conflict and natural disaster, famine. God here is unlike the deity in the Moses stories who speaks from burning bushes and mountain tops. Galloping through all sorts of sordid and uplifting chapters to this point, no real clue exists that God might be at work in what was happening to Joseph and his family. Remember, more than a decade passes between the brothers’ dastardly deed and the redemptive encounter. Nowhere in the intervening years does the narrator report something like, “As Joseph lay in his prison cell, the word of the Lord came to him: ‘Do not fear, Joseph. I will care for you.’” Instead, God’s ways seem subdued, hidden. How very like my experience, our stories, our story. Mystery.

Second, in our reading, hiddenness moves aside for interpretation, powerfully. Joseph interprets his life experience: “God sent me before you to preserve life (not just theirs)....God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant (that promise way back to Abraham and Sarah).....It was not you who sent me here, but God...” When did he realize that possibility? This revelation, this interpretation takes place precisely as Joseph switches from being the powerful Egyptian toying with a Canaanite family to being brother. I suspect the timing is not coincidental. We can ask: did his decision to reveal himself as brother somehow allow him to see clearly the hand of God in all that had and was occurring? Or, was it because he suddenly saw the hand of God in the whole drama that he was able to reveal himself to them, to become a brother without revenge? In our own lives of faith, can we point to places where we even tentatively confess, “God helped me and I did it,” or, where we say, “I did it, and looking back, I believe God helped me.”? Both are interpretations of our experience with life and God. It may not matter how we answer the question. The result for Joseph is the power of God’s promise to bring life, moving them toward harmony. And we hear the words of the psalmist: “How very good and pleasant is it when kindred live together in unity!” (133:1)

Finally, central to the profound change in that arrangement is Joseph’s cataclysmic announcement: “I am Joseph; do not be afraid! Do not be angry with yourselves.” Brueggemann notes that his powerful self-assertion reshapes, redefines the whole situation. Now, the entire family must live with the new reality, including all of its terror, astonishment, confession, and ultimately new future. How disorienting it must have been for those brothers. I cannot imagine. And then, think about poor father Jacob. How must he have felt when he learned that his dead son was alive, second in command over all of Egypt, and that they were moving?

Any lights going on as you hear this? On the first day of the week, early in the morning, some women went to the tomb....to do the usual, the ordinary. Suddenly, the life-redefining voice: “Do not be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus. He is not here, for he has been raised.” Like being slapped in the face, hard.

In both cases, people were invited to put their pitiful, hopeless pasts behind themselves, and to embrace a radically different life-giving future. In both cases, God shockingly used what had been reprehensible, for life.

In these three observations together, perhaps, just perhaps we glimpse a bit of God’s good news. Wherever there are signs of life replacing death, wherever reconciliation overcomes estrangement, wherever forgiveness overpowers revenge, wherever generosity is stronger than greed, wherever environmental care takes the place of degradation, wherever hope crowds out despair, mysteriously our God , the God of Joseph, the one we know in Jesus Christ, is decisively present. We can affirm that good news, even as it redefines our lives. Ours is to live into this unfolding reality, this holy hiddenness/presence, this calling of a lifetime.

P.S. My sermon title includes the Olympics. Did you see the coverage of the two women athletes, one from Russia and one from Georgia? Even as their nations entered horrific warfare, these two women stood on the medal stand and embraced. Perhaps in that small gesture, seen round the world, the hiddenness of God’s life-giving intention peeked through. May it be so.